How to spot a winter cold, the flu, COVID-19 or a Christmas hangover
The cold weather can make some of us more likely to pick up bugs when we’re out and about. Plus, this time of year sees many of us enjoying a lot of overindulgence or a glass of bubbly or 2. Drinking more than you usually would can lead to restless sleep and dehydration. So, as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, lots of us are likely to end up feeling run down.
Runny noses, sore throats, coughs*, aches and pains are all common at this time of year. All of which can be symptoms of a cold, flu and even a hangover.
So how can we tell the difference between a cold, the flu and a hangover? And how can we make sure we can fight off these bugs that love the winter so much? We’re here to explain…
Why do we get ill in the winter?
There are lots of reasons why people get ill in the winter. Here’s just 2 examples of why we’re more prone to illness at this time of year:
Our defences don’t work as well
The lining of your nose usually uses mucus to trap viruses and bacteria. These are moved up the nose by tiny hairs and end up in our stomach, where the acid kills them. When the weather is cold the nasal passage is cooler and this process of clearing germs becomes much slower. This means that viruses and bacteria have more time to get into our bodies and make us ill.
Our lifestyles can also make us more prone to catching a bug. For lots of people this time of year is very busy with Christmas parties, catch-ups with friends and visiting family. This coupled with stressing about presents, family dynamics, eating lots, exercising less and in some cases drinking lots of alcohol can mean we’re run down. When this happens our body’s immune system won’t be working at 100% and so coughs*, colds and the flu can sneak in.
While 2020 might not be a typical Christmas, lots of us might feel stressed or anxious for other reasons – missing our family, changes to the way we work and financial worries.
Telling the difference between a winter cold, flu and hangover
A Christmas hangover might be easy to spot if you’ve had a few too many to drink the night before. The symptoms can sometimes be confused with a cold or the flu (headaches, nausea, sore throat). So telling the difference between a cold and the flu can be tricky.
The key things to remember are:
- If you get the flu you’re likely to feel a lot worse than if you have a cold
- If you have a hangover the symptoms are likely to pass much quicker than a cold or the flu
- If you have the flu, the symptoms are likely to come on much quicker than a cold
Common cold symptoms and what to do
It’s very normal to get a cold during the winter, and lots of us might have them in the summer too. But working out the difference between a cold and the flu is important, as often the flu can be unpleasant, and we all need to do our bit to protect vulnerable people from catching it.
Cold symptoms will come on over a couple of days and include:
- Blocked nose
- Runny nose
- Pressure in your ears and face
- Loss of taste and smell*
- Aching muscles
The best way to help yourself get better is to get lots of rest, keep warm and stay hydrated. You can also take decongestant sprays or tablets to help your blocked nose if suitable. Decongestant sprays shouldn’t bemused for more than a week.
Painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol to reduce aches, pains and a fever if suitable for you.
Common flu symptoms and what to do
The flu is likely to come on very quickly and can make you feel pretty poorly for up to several days.
Main flu symptoms to look out for are:
- A sudden high temperature of 38C or over*
- Aches and pains
- Dry cough*
- Sore throat
- Problems sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach ache or diarrhoea
- Nausea and vomiting
If you think you have the flu it’s important to get lots of rest, keep yourself warm, take paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce aches, pains and a fever if suitable. Also make sure you’re drinking lots of water. You should contact your GP if you’re over 65, pregnant, have a long-term medical condition or weakened immune system.
Most vulnerable people can help protect themselves from seasonal flu by getting the annual flu jab.
Common hangover symptoms and what to do
You will most likely be able to tell if you have a hangover if you had a few drinks the day before. But sometimes they can take us by surprise, if we don’t think we’ve had too much to drink. So it’s good to be aware of your symptoms to double check it’s not something else.
Typical hangover symptoms include:
- Feeling thirsty
- Nausea and vomiting
- Trouble sleeping
- Racing heart
- Lack of concentration
Rehydration is key to recovering from a hangover. The best time to do this is just after drinking and before you go to sleep. If this slips your mind in the early hours, make sure you drink lots of water during the following days. Painkillers will help with a headache, sugary foods can help you feel less wobbly and soups rich in vitamins and minerals can be digested by a sensitive stomach.
*Please note – if you have a fever, new continuous dry cough or loss of taste and/or smell this could be a symptom of COVID-19. You will need to self-isolate according to the national guidelines, unless you test negative. If you or anyone in your household is displaying symptoms of COVID-19, you can get a free NHS test or you can buy a swab test kit from LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor. Our test kits are suitable for adults aged 18 and over only. Our test kits are for personal use only, and must not be ordered for anyone else. Visit NHS COVID-19 pages for more advice.